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Former Japanese PM calls for end to nuclear power

Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2012

In an unusually stark warning, Japan's prime minister during last year's nuclear crisis has told a parliamentary inquiry the country should discard nuclear power as too dangerous, saying the Fukushima accident had pushed Japan to the brink of ''national collapse.''

In testimony to a panel investigating the government's handling of the nuclear disaster, the former prime minister Naoto Kan also warned on Monday that the politically powerful nuclear industry was trying to push Japan back towards nuclear power despite ''showing no remorse'' for the accident.

Mr Kan's was the most closely watched testimony in the six-month inquiry, which was started by lawmakers who felt an earlier internal investigation by the government had papered over problems. Mr Kan used the appearance to criticise the relatively pro-nuclear stance of the present prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, who replaced him in August.

Mr Noda has called for restarting Japan's undamaged nuclear plants, which have all been idle since the accident because of public safety concerns. He says the plants are needed to avoid economically crippling power shortages.

Mr Noda has met stiff resistance from many Japanese voters, who say the government is rushing to restart the plants without proving that they are safe or allowing time for a proper public dialogue over whether Japan actually needs nuclear power.

In his testimony, Mr Kan said Japan's plant safety was inadequate because the energy policy had been hijacked by the ''nuclear village'' – a term for the power companies and pro-nuclear regulators and researchers that worked closely together to promote the industry.

He said the only way to break their grip was to form a new regulatory agency staffed with true outsiders, such as US and European experts.

Since resigning from office in August, Mr Kan has kept a low profile. Mr Kan spent much of his three-hour testimony fending off criticisms of his handling of the accident, which covered a wide area in northeastern Japan with radiation.

His strongest comments came at the end of his testimony, when a panel member asked if he had any advice for the present prime minister.

Mr Kan replied that the accident had brought Japan to the brink of evacuating metropolitan Tokyo and its 30 million residents, and that the loss of the capital would have paralysed the national government, leading to ''a collapse of the nation's ability to function''.

He said the prospect of losing Tokyo made him realise that nuclear power was just too risky, and the consequences of an accident were too large for Japan to accept.

''It is impossible to ensure safety sufficiently to prevent the risk of a national collapse,'' Mr Kan said.

''Experiencing the accident convinced me that the best way to make nuclear plants safe is not to rely on them, but rather to get rid of them.''

However, Mr Noda apparently did not the heed the warning. Hours later, the Prime Minister indicated that he may soon make a decision on restarting the Oi nuclear plant in western Japan, which he hopes will be a first step towards turning on Japan's other idle plants.

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